In recent weeks, Chinese social media has made much light of people in the U.S. and a number of other Western countries frantically buying and hoarding toilet paper.
It isn’t the only thing people around the world have been panic-buying, but it has gotten the most press, partly because it makes for an amusing and absurd story. As many have pointed out, rice might be the most comparably sought-after product in China, but rice is a staple food. Why have so many Westerners apparently fixated on toilet paper?
In truth, people have been panic-buying and hoarding more than these tissues, which weren’t even the first items to sell out in many places. Masks, hand sanitizer, and disposable gloves typically went first, followed by fresh meat, eggs, milk, and then frozen and canned goods. And yes, somewhere in the midst of all this, people bought a lot of toilet paper.
There are likely a number contributing factors here. The first is cost. Toilet paper is cheap, it’s not going to spoil, and eventually, you’ll need it even if there isn't a shortage. It gives people an affordable sense of security when everything else, from their paychecks to their very health, seems so uncertain.
Second, generally speaking, there is the underlying political philosophy in some Western countries — and the U.S. in particular — that the government can’t be trusted and self-reliance is vital. While people in China might have mixed feelings about their government, and especially local officials, reliance on government generally seems higher, and citizens have high expectations of it.
This belief system stands in contrast to systems that privilege private property protections, divide government to limit its power, and count on civil society to pick up the slack. The economist Milton Friedman and his disciples waged a yearslong battle to convince politicians, economists, and the public that government is not the solution, it’s the problem. This tradition is particularly dear to the modern conservative movement, which dominates in the U.S., but can also be found to varying degrees in the U.K., France, and Germany.
Judging by recent social media posts, some Chinese who still see Western civilization through rose-tinted glasses have attributed its apparent toilet paper fixation to the concerns of a “more civilized society.” That’s a bit silly, not to mention culturally insensitive toward societies that aren’t panic-buying toilet paper. A better theory is that the product is associated with better health and cleanliness, which many consider crucial during a pandemic.
Of course, it’s hard to find anyone still wearing rose-tinted glasses these days. If Sino-U.S. relations were already in decline, the pandemic has only made things worse. But despite initial impressions that China had severely bungled things, there is a growing belief that its handling of the outbreak has been far superior to Western countries — offering it the opportunity to flip the script, so to speak.
Originally — and to a significant extent, this is still the case — some Americans reacted to the initial outbreak in culturally insensitive and even openly racist ways. This impulse has been fueled in part by leaders and media figures who have variously blamed Chinese culture for creating the virus and the Chinese government for failing to stop its spread.
Doing so allowed them to both distract people from failures closer to home, and to continue to undermine Sino-American relations, advancing the “decoupling” of the two countries. A Morning Consult poll conducted in mid-March found that 73% of U.S. adults believed China was “very” or “somewhat” responsible for the spread of COVID-19 — more than any other polled cause.
The shift toward decoupling seems above all else to be a misguided response to two powerful but contradictory trends at work in the modern world. First, there is a competition of systems underway, on whether the Chinese or the American method is best. This competition stretches across domestic and international issues, politics, and economics. And regardless of whether either country is actually seeking to sustain or establish its hegemony, the perception has led to increased tensions and growing conflict.
At the same time, however, the two countries are also converging, and have more in common now than ever before — sometimes in ways that are discomforting to those standing on either side.
A few months ago, many considered the pandemic to be simply a Chinese problem. Even as China moved aggressively to contain and suppress the outbreak, some observers remained unconcerned that it might reach their countries. Even those who did sometimes held such a low opinion of Chinese abilities that they did not believe responding to it would require much work.
Of course, when the virus did reach their shores, many of these same individuals were caught flat-footed. With a few notable exceptions, they have proven unable to respond internally or form an effective global response.
Some in the West are starting to wonder whether the Chinese system has worked better, and if so, why. There is also an increasing lack of faith in America’s ability to lead the global response effort, with many prominent Western publications fretting over this development. This has been underscored by Trump’s “America First” approach, most gallingly on display in his refusal to relax sanctions on Iran, tariffs on China, and the incredible, though disputed, story of his attempt to buy a German pharmaceutical company working on a vaccine for COVID-19 — with the caveats that the U.S. would own the vaccine, control access, and provide it to Americans first.
By contrast, the Chinese response has included calls for more effective global partnerships. And now that its outbreak is seemingly under control, its companies are shipping medical supplies to hot spots around the world. The U.S. itself is drawing on this supply chain; just this week it organized a medical supply airlift to source needed items from China. Yet few have drawn the obvious lessons — that there is much to be gained learning from and working with China, not only in suppressing this disease but also in other spheres.
To pick one example among many: It is necessary for the two countries to coordinate their responses to global warming, which threatens everyone — and which, incidentally, contributes to the risk not only of environmental collapse, but may also spur more novel outbreaks like COVID-19, as environmental changes prompt new disease patterns among viral, bacterial, and fungal pathogens.
The ongoing pandemic demonstrates our shared vulnerabilities, our interconnectedness, and the necessity of mutual understanding and working together, whatever our differences. Fundamentally, fighting with each other — or even merely decoupling — will only lead to more tragedy. And no amount of toilet paper or emergency medical supply airlifts will protect us from the mess that follows.
Editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Steve Cole/E+/VCG)